Epistles of Thomas

March 22, 2010

Scientific method and unsupported statements

Filed under: Uncategorized — Thomas @ 12:06
Tags: , , , ,

I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. He makes the statement again and again that science is based on proven evidence and science only accepts what can be proven. The book is part rant against pseudoscience and part defense of scientism. I’m reading along and being reminded ad infinitum about how important it is to only believe what is absolutely provable through scientific experiment when he makes this whopper of a claim:

Humans, like other primates, are a gregarious lot. We enjoy one another’s company. We’re mammals, and parental care of the young is essential for the continuance of the hereditary lines. The parent smiles at the child, the child smiles back, and a bond is forged or strengthened. As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin (45).

The point he’s making is that people like to recognise faces which is why they find them on the moon, Mars, etc. What he’s saying is that natural selection ensured that a million years ago non-smiling babies were left to die by parents who preferred smiling babies. Perhaps someone could explain how we know that a million years ago this happened. All we can scientifically prove is that babies today smile when they see a familiar face (assuming they aren’t hungry, tired, have a dirty diaper, etc.). My point – Sagan talks a lot about relying on the scientific method but then makes claims about what happened a million years ago that have no basis in provable scientific “facts.” Call me a radical skeptic but this seems to be pseudoscience just as much as making claims about life on Mars. Do you agree?


  1. Thomas, I checked a box that would notify me of either a reply or post here. So I’m not aure if this was directed at me or readers in general.

    Also, I replied on the thread we’v been conversing in.

    Comment by hookie — March 22, 2010 @ 13:12 | Reply

    • No, this wasn’t directed at you but if the shoe fits :). I just responded on the other thread.

      Comment by Thomas — March 22, 2010 @ 15:03 | Reply

  2. Perhaps you’re just being oversensitive. To me it reads like an example of a reasonable guess as to how natural selection might select for facial recognition, or something. He might have made it clearer by saying ‘perhaps it is the case that’

    It’s the old claim that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, again. You say that ‘this seems to be pseudoscience just as much as making claims about life on Mars’ but is it really that big of a claim he’s making, in comparison to pseudoscientific claims? Whether his claim is correct or not, it changes very little of what we understand about humans, natural selection or science in general.

    On the other hand if a pseudoscientific claim like, say, homeopathy were correct, it would change a whole lot about what we know about medicine, chemistry and the underlying physics – and that’s why this sort of claim demands more serious scrutiny than ‘I think we recognise faces because of natural selection of blah blah…’

    Comment by SurplusGamer — March 23, 2010 @ 4:00 | Reply

    • His point has been that you cannot make guesses and state them as fact unless you have scientifically tested them. He has been making the point throughout his book that you must have real evidence before making any claims. Then he goes ahead and makes this claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever. I’m merely pointing out that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

      Comment by Thomas — March 23, 2010 @ 10:27 | Reply

  3. Surely you see your apologetics for what they are, right?

    Comment by Hookie — April 4, 2010 @ 18:26 | Reply

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